In Genesis 42 the epic of Joseph picks up its connection with the story in chapter 37 about how his 10 brothers (excluding Benjamin, his younger brother also by Rachel) hated him, sold him to a passing caravan, and lied to his father, Jacob. The intervening chapters have ignored the brothers.
Now we find the brothers feeling the ravages of the great famine. Word comes that there is food for sale in Egypt. So the brothers take money and go. Benjamin has replaced Joseph as his father’s favorite. Jacob will not risk his beloved son, so only the others make the trip.
Genesis tells the story with a lot of novelistic marks. There is tension and characterization in the plot that surpasses the artistry of most other biblical stories.
It is central to the plot that the brothers do not recognize Joseph. The last time they saw him he was a teenager. Now he is apparently in his late thirties. He dresses like an Egyptian and he uses an interpreter to talk to them.
Joseph accuses the brothers of being foriegn spies who want to see the “nakedness of the land”. He insists that they go home and bring back Benjamin to show their good faith. Also he keeps Simeon in Egypt as a hostage. But to show some good will, Joseph lets them take donkey loads of grain, while he surreptitiously gives their money back.
The son’s ask old Jacob to send Benjamin back to Egypt with them. He thinks Joseph is dead. Rachel had died in childbirth when Benjamin was born. His dilemma comes out clearly in verse 36:
“Their father Jacob said to them, ‘You want to bereave me of more children! Joseph is no more. Simeon is gone. And now you want to take Benjamin! Everything seems to be going against me’”.
Again it looks like there were once two sources. In an old one Reuben stands up to Jacob. But in Genesis 43 it is Judah who finally convinces the old man to let them take Benjamin.
Reuben’s suggestion in v. 37 offering his sons as a human sacrifice gets no response from Jacob. In the whole context of Genesis the question of human sacrifice has already been settled in the story of Abraham and Isaac. This is no longer an option.
There is a tradition that Reuben became alienated over one of his father’s concubines (35:22 and 49:4). Historically, all the traditions about the concubines are questionable. When the tribes whose patriarchs were supposed to be sons by these women became part of Israel, the genealogical connection to Jacob was probably constructed.
But the tribe of Reuben diminished over the history of Israel. Once it was the preeminent tribe. The old song in Judges 5 sings of the “clans of Reuben”. In Judges 11 Jephthah claims that Israel had already lived in Reubenite territory for 300 years in his day (around 1100 B.C.E. v. 26). By the time Genesis was written, Reuben had lost out. It is possible that there was a historical alienation between Reuben and the other tribes. If Reuben, like his Moabite neighbors, had been open to human sacrifice, that could have been part of it.